Hong Kong Postscripts
Now that the Hong Kong International Races are in the books, here are a few postscripts:
1. Able Friend is no longer a budding star -- after the Hong Kong Mile, he's officially an international powerhouse.
From a potentially dicey spot behind horses near the rear, the brute angled out and delivered the coup de grace with an other-worldly final 200 meters (about a quarter-mile) in :21.71. Able Friend blitzed the field in (almost) a single bound. To underscore the quality of this performance, note that Trade Storm, the third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Mile, could do no better than seventh here.
That raw ability to turn on the afterburners on a dime, and win geared down by a race-record 4 1/4 lengths as your rider starts the victory party early, makes you a serious miler anywhere in the world.
Let's just hope that we get to see Able Friend go global. Trainer John Moore indicated just how eager he is to send the son of Shamardal to Dubai, with the proviso that his owner, Dr. Cornel Li Fook Kwan, might not be as willing.
"I'll do my utmost to convince the owner to go for the Dubai Duty Free -- but that might be a long lunch and a lot of alcohol," Moore said.
2. Moore again proved that he has perfected the art of getting horses absolutely spot-on for the big occasion, as he scored an HKIR double with Designs on Rome in the about 1 1/4-mile Hong Kong Cup.
Designs on Rome provides a case study of a training philosophy that is quite different from what we usually see in the United States. Our typical training style emphasizes fitness off morning works. So looking at Designs on Rome's past performances from the perspective of an American fan, it would be easy to misread his starts this fall as a loss of his stellar form from the spring.
But in fact, the Australian-born Moore is employing their tried-and-true method of racing a horse into peak form, often starting out at unsuitably short distances and stepping up incrementally. Designs on Rome was basically getting some "match practice" to bring him on for his real objective.
The match practice was also an opportunity for jockey Joao Moreira to learn the secret to riding him. Designs on Rome needs to be driven on a long way from home, giving him ample time to gather momentum before he reaches top speed -- a totally different type from his push-button stablemate Able Friend.
3. Flintshire won the Hong Kong Vase as he was entitled to, getting the jump on Willie Cazals and holding him at bay by a half-length. Since Flintshire finished runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Turf in his prior start, it could be argued that he furnished a timely boost to Main Sequence's U.S. Horse of the Year candidacy.
At the same time, we shouldn't go overboard about the merit of this performance. The Juddmonte homebred had a significant class edge, and accordingly took advantage.
Racing Manager Teddy Grimthorpe has mentioned the Dubai Sheema Classic as an early-season goal. It is indeed the logical spot for a world-class 1 1/2-mile horse who wants quick conditions. Flintshire has never finished out of the exacta on good (or better) ground, so he ought to run up to his typically high level.
Yet the Sheema will come up a far deeper race than the HK Vase -- a fact that could be worth remembering come World Cup night.
4. Sophomores Snow Sky (Vase) and Peniaphobia (Hong Kong Sprint) were both up against it in their respective races according to the statistics, and neither was able to make history on the day.
Snow Sky's effort in the Vase was lackluster, for the Sir Michael Stoute colt had a clear shot down the stretch, only to end up seventh behind fellow Juddmonte homebred Flintshire. Even though Snow Sky is still a work in progress, and has scope for development, I'm starting to wonder if he might not end up like former Juddmonte/Stoute runner Sea Moon -- i.e., sold to continue his career in Australia. Both ran in the Great Voltigeur at three (Sea Moon winning, Snow Sky second), both finished third in the St Leger, and both were entered in the HK Vase (Sea Moon had to scratch in 2012). These words might come back to haunt me, but doesn't the parallel look interesting?
In contrast, Peniaphobia came awfully close as the Sprint runner-up, just a neck shy of front-running Aerovelocity, and stamped himself as the real deal. Considering how long it can take to acclimate to Hong Kong, the Irish-bred gelding has done exceptionally well since his local debut in January. And as a general principle, it's usually tough for three-year-old sprinters versus their elders anyway, let alone dealing with a vastly different environment as an import. Peniaphobia will only get stronger over time, and looks like the next big thing for outstanding trainer Tony Cruz.
5. Two of the Japanese contingent, Straight Girl (HK Sprint) and World Ace (HK Mile), ran especially noteworthy races in defeat. Straight Girl was marooned in post 13 in the Sprint, but offered a bold bid down the stretch and was beaten all of a length in third. This was her fourth placing at Grade/Group 1 level, and it's only a matter of time before she earns a deserved breakthrough.
World Ace continues to cost himself, or else he might have finished closer than fourth in the Mile. Once again failing to leave the gate cleanly, he had further trouble when having to steady off heels, then finding himself in a bit tight in the lane. The son of Deep Impact also raced awkwardly, with his head at an ungainly angle, before slicing between foes in the final strides. Trainer Yasutoshi Ikee indicated that World Ace could step up in trip, and he will work on the gate behavior. If World Ace ever learns how to get himself organized, he'll win one of these marquee races.
6. The importance of the break was demonstrated by Aerovelocity (HK Sprint) and Empoli (HK Vase), for diametrically opposed reasons. Aerovelocity's flying start turned out to be perhaps the key to victory in a contentious Sprint, where he wound up controlling the race.
Empoli, unfortunately, illustrated how to lose the race at the start. Slow to go and hopping when he did, the German colt bounced Adrie de Vries around in the saddle and found himself dead last of 11 in the Vase. While that in principle wasn't a bad place to be if you're a closer like Willie Cazals, it wasn't the spot Empoli wanted to be, and he never got involved. Look for the Peter Schiergen pupil to bounce back at the Dubai Carnival.
7. Buffering (HK Sprint) and Cirrus des Aigles (HK Cup) both dealt with foot issues last week, but only one of them might have been compromised on raceday. When a tiring sixth in the Sprint, Buffering ran below his best Australian form, and the ill-timed setback is the likely explanation.
Cirrus des Aigles, on the other hand, was a close fourth in the Cup, in a performance similar to his third a year ago. Now winless from five tries at Sha Tin, he's just not as effective here.
8. Criterion showed tactical flexibility to take up a much more forward position than usual in the Cup, and the Australian shipper threatened to pull an upset until Designs on Rome and Military Attack swooped late. He deserves extra credit for that third-place effort, not only because he normally comes from further back, but also because he fared best of the international squad. Factor in the unfortunate allergic reaction he had to the "tick wash" before shipping, and it's even more commendable.
Having performed so well on this debut for new trainer David Hayes, who'd only had him about a month, Criterion will be a top contender in The Championships back home in Australia. His prime target is the April 11 Queen Elizabeth at Randwick, with the March 21 George Ryder as his stepping stone.